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Ukulele Is No Joke in Santa Cruz
By Andrea Perkins
I was in a room filled with people wearing funny hats and Hawaiian shirts. Even weirder was the fact that they were all holding tiny, four-stringed guitars. No, it wasn't a dream. It was Peter Thomas' fourth annual Ukulele Party.
Peter Thomas has a Ukulele Party every year, right before the International Ukulele Convention in Hayward, California. Uke aficionados from God knows where gather in Thomas' Santa Cruz beach house on their way to the convention and, being the less conventional of their breed, revel until the early morning.
"Every year more [ukulele players] show up," says Thomas, a small excitable man in overalls and a bright floral-print Hawaiian shirt.
On a makeshift plywood stage draped with beach towels and paper pineapples, these ukulelists come to show each other what they can do with this inconspicuous instrument. After Thomas gives an encouraging address on the state of the ukulele (it's beginning to be taken more seriously), an unlikely couple takes the small stage and looks down nervously at the room stuffed with people in folding chairs. People are sitting and standing wherever they can, crammed on top of counters and into corners.
"Hi, we're from Copperopolis," says the lady. They seem nervous, but only until she starts strumming and that big, full voice rises up out of her polka-dotted dress, delivering the most powerful rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" I have ever heard.
Next the host introduces Fred, "a world famous musicologist from Chicago."
"The ukulele," begins Fred, holding his exquisitely crafted instrument aloft, "is the magic wand of popularity." Looking dapper in his red vest and yellow tie, Fred treats us to a brief lecture on the obscure origins of the instrument in question, describing its tiny forbears in Portugal, South America and, of course, Hawaii. "Between 1915 and 1935, the ukulele was the most popular instrument in America," he says. "There was one in every home."
For the uninitiated like myself, a party like Peter Thomas' is a cold-water baptism into the mysterious underbelly of the ukulele world. For one thing, I had no idea that there were so many ukulele players. Furthermore, I never would have guessed that they could span such a spectrum. You never know what you're going to get when someone with a ukulele approaches the microphone. Blues, Tracy Chapman covers, traditional Hawaiian ballads, American pop songs from the twenties and thirties, disco, country, reggae ... even punk rock can come out of this small, easy-to-play instrument.
A man introduced as "Ukulele Dick" takes a seat behind the vintage 1930's microphone. Ukulele Dick is a guitar repair man who specializes in fixing ukuleles. During his plucky version of "Fascinatin' Rhythm," which he executes on an especially small, blue-steel uke, a man in a white suit, leopard-skin bow tie and a brown beret emerges from the shadows and starts to accompany him on the trumpet.
Most ukulele players have real day jobs. Some are antique-shop owners, graphic artists, accountants or even writers, like Jim Houston. At first I don't notice Jim Houston, the well-known Californian author, standing by the buffet table. Camouflaged by his Hawaiian shirt, he plops a toothpick-speared wedge of pineapple into his mouth. I decide to go over and tell him I didn't know he played the ukulele.
"You have to be careful who you talk to about the ukulele," he says. "A lot of people just think it's a joke." I don't know why I should be at this point, but I'm a little stunned when a few minutes later, Houston takes the stage and belts out a decent rendition of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."
There are so many ukulele players at the party tonight that they've been asked to play only two songs.
At first it's a whisper rustling through the audience, but then it becomes a loud chant: "Oliver! Oliver! Oliver!"
Oliver Brown, a tall man with big black-rimmed glasses, takes the stage and without wasting time on words, begins to strum. "There's a beast in the cellar, makes a racket all night," he sings. "Though it sounds like the laundry, I know it's three-headed and green with claws and big teeth and breaths ultraviolet light ..."
Brown's music is funny, edgy, poetic, prophetic, political, surreal, innocent and tragic. In other word, it eludes categorization. If you've ever watched Sesame Street, it's possible that you've heard Oliver Brown playing his little ukulele ditty called "Over, Under." His songs dwell on things like love, Fidel Castro's flair for baseball, birds, milk, girls who work in delis, geography, water, god, kangaroos and shipwrecks. His tune called "Old Milwuakie" is about buying cheap beer for minors.
"There is scarcely an underground musical movement that Oliver Brown has not put his mark on," wrote Squash magazine a few years ago. There are a lot of rumor's floating around about Brown, but what is certain is that he toured with the B52s as their opening act until he committed the faux pas of covering B52s songs before a B52s show.
Brown has produced five high-quality recordings: "Vayo Con Queso" (Go With Cheese), "Games Up The Street," "Kiss Someone," "Oliver Eats Five Hotdogs" and "The Great Egg Toss." Currently he is busy working on his next album ("it's very psychedelic," he says) and getting his teaching certificate (he wants to be a high school American history teacher). In his free time, he creates crossword puzzles for local newspapers and goes bird watching.
Oliver Brown has been called many things by many people, including "Messiah," "Ukulele Extraordinaire," "Superman," "as honest as the glue in your shoe" and "a breath of fresh air in today's era of despair." One local Santa Cruz cafe has even named a sandwich after him.
During his twenty-year career, Brown has delighted audiences at nightclubs in New York and San Francisco, where he once got heckled by Jello Biafra. He has filled venues to overflowing in Santa Cruz almost every month for the past seven years, and his cult following knows all his words by heart. At Oliver Brown shows, the rule is if you know the words, sing along; and people do. He has played many venues, including lavish private parties, living rooms, bars, laundromats and parking garages. He has been the opening act for more-well-known musical acts, such as the Violent Femmes, and has played in elementary schools, colleges and canoes.
"This is the ballet that goes on inside," sings Brown, flipping his ukulele between verses and growing more and more passionate, "this is the process, get me off this ride, you suck my brain, you suck my brain, you suck my brain, you suck my brain, you suck my brain, yes you do, I said you suck my brain, you suck my brayayayayain, yes you do, I said you suck my brain, you suck my braaaaaaiiiiiiin!" He ends it with a punk-rock rattle and screech, and for a second the audience is too stunned to do anything. Then comes the applause, and the applause is deafening.
"Saying the ukulele isn't a valid musical instrument is like saying golf isn't a sport," says Oliver. "The ukulele is an instrument in the capital "I" sense of the word, italicized."
A couple of years ago, armed with nothing more then a ukulele, Brown succeeded in changing a Santa Cruz city law that required businesses to purchase costly entertainment permits before hosting live music. Thanks to his musical protest outside city hall, today's law allows a business to host live music if there is no cover charge and the audience is under 75 people.
Brown believes that there were ukulele players long before there were ukuleles. In his self-published book entitled "The Unauthorized Genealogy of the Ukulele" he claims that "the first ukulele player we have a decent record of is William lX, Duke of Aquitaine (1071-1127), a troubadour who delighted noble audiences with humorous songs about his military misfortunes during the first Crusade."
"There are many ukulele players in the world," says Brown, adding after a pause that it "would be nice to have more of them playing the ukulele." Brown thinks that there are probably at least 200 ukulele players in Santa Cruz alone. "Only about 20 of them will admit it, however," he says.
A little while after Brown's performance at Peter Thomas' party, the last performer of the evening takes the stage. But instead of playing his ukulele, he pushes play on a tape recorder, releasing the electrifying sounds of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady." The performer just stands there looking at his ukulele for a while before taking a bottle of lighter fluid and dousing it. Nobody really thinks he is going to set his ukulele on fire. He does. Then he smashes it into bits.
Two hours later, after a giant sing alongever hear 50 ukuleles playing "Surfin USA" at the same time?people are still standing around in circles, shmoozing, networking and jamming. As for me I'm all uked out.
"See you next year," says Thomas. "And next time don't forget your ukulele."
"I won't," I tell him, and I mean it.
Top-page photo by Andrea Perkins; B&W of Oliver Brown by Brooke Loder.